A Reply on Overcoming Zionism

Against the Current, No. 132, January/February 2008

Joel Kovel

DAVID FINKEL AND I see eye to eye on most basics where Israel is concerned, and he is generous in praising my recently published Overcoming Zionism. For years I have known him to be a stalwart anti-Zionist and one of the best-informed people on the socialist left concerning this most vexing and intractable of conflicts.

Yet there is a sharp difference between us, which David reveals midway in his review of Overcoming Zionism in ATC 131 (November-December 2007). Under a subheading titled “Missing Dimensions,” David tasks me with various lapses and theoretical weaknesses which allegedly vitiate the political impact of my book.

It is apparent from the start of this section that he is unhappy not simply with what he takes to be my methodological limitations, but with the direction my argument as a whole is heading as summed up in the book’s subtitle, “Creating a single democratic state in Israel/Palestine,” i.e. the notorious “One-State Solution.”

He takes this to be an abstraction, and therefore a distraction, from the real struggles on the ground, and holds that the lack of attention I give to matters such as nationalism and national self-determination weaken and compromise the goal. The question, David says, is not whether what I have offered is utopian: “There is after all a place for utopian thinking when it’s rooted in material possibilities. The burning political question is whether any progress toward this or any decent solution is possible abstracted from real-life nationalism and national self-determination, and here Kovel offers no answers.”

The Purpose of OZ

Perhaps I have no answer to these things. But I can offer a question of my own instead: What is the purpose of a book, and how does that purpose legitimately shape the writing of a book?

What David has in mind, it seems to me, defines the purpose of a good and useful book about politics on the ground of Israel/ Palestine. In fact, several expertly done books have appeared in the last few years that extensively take up the themes David calls for, and within the framework of a One State solution. These include Virginia Tilley’s The One-State Solution (2005) and Ali Abunimah’s One Country (2006).

I admire both of these works, and consider myself in league with them. But I didn’t want to write such a book, because I had a different, though related, purpose in mind. I wanted to overcome Zionism, to bring it down as the organizing ideology of Israel. I consider that nothing truly worthwhile will happen in the Middle East, and indeed throughout the world, unless the grip of Zionism is radically weakened.

And so I wanted to write a book called Overcoming Zionism, for which purpose I would take this beast apart and show how its interwoven tentacles give rise to an immense set of offences against humanity (including the Jews) and nature, and also try to give people some sense as to how Zionism is to be overcome.

Neither Tilley nor Abuminah addresses such a project (the word Zionism does not appear in the index of One Country). And although they have much that is useful to say about the bizarre relationship between Israel and the United States, they do not approach this from within the frame of being Jewish, for the sensible reason that they are not Jewish.

I had no such option. The only choice was whether to bracket this side of my life and present an objectivized, de-personalized account of Israel/Palestine; or whether to work through my relationship to Judaism and use this as a kind of template to help develop the larger themes.

This choice was easy, in fact inevitable. The first, objectivized pathway was no option at all, if only because I would never have been able to summon the energy to write Overcoming Zionism unless driven by my own struggles with Judaism and Zionism.

Correspondingly, it seemed judicious in writing a book so intertwined with my own life and so polemical in intent to set aside the kind of detailed account of Palestinian nationalism and struggles on the ground in Israel that David calls for.

There are, simply, conceptual choices one makes in preparing a text; and I submit that the points of Overcoming Zionism that David admires would not have been possible had I provided the additional material he calls for — nor, more importantly, would the book’s own political impact have been possible.

Obviously, the first criterion as to whether a book can make a difference is that it effectively propound something different, while remaining connected to the collective consciousness of its audience. I wanted above all for Overcoming Zionism to be such a work. Hence it was addressed to those in Europe, North America, and especially the United States — and even more especially, Jews in the United States — who have shared something of my existential journey; and it set out to make readers rethink their relationship with Zionism.

Getting Noticed

One strategy in doing this was to target the Israel Lobby, as the enforcers of Zionism, both in the text and the world. To be more precise, I half hoped that I could bait the Lobby into an attack on me. How otherwise could I draw anybody’s attention? In this world, to write a book such as Overcoming Zionism is to relegate oneself to “malign neglect.”

This is the default option for the defenders of the system: to so marginalize alternative voices as to drive them to the point of exhaustion and demoralization. I am not speaking of absolutes here; there remain outlets on alternate radio and TV, along with the small-grained face-to-face gatherings in homes and community centers (thanks for David for organizing one such in Detroit).

Nonetheless, despite hundreds of letter and personal statements of how much the book has meant to individuals, no reviews of Overcoming Zionism have yet appeared, for example, in any above-ground journal, even on the left, with the honorable exception of Against the Current.

Malign neglect became open warfare in August with an assault on Overcoming Zionism by a branch of the Campus Watch movement (StandWithUs/Michigan), along with another salient directed at Pluto Press, my doughty publisher and perhaps the leading source of pro-Palestine books. The broadside was directed at the University of Michigan Press, Pluto’s distributor in the United States.

I suspect that my decision to go “too far,” that is, to disregard all taboos against the “excessive” criticism of Israel, combined with the fact that these heretical ideas came from an American Jew, triggered the blundering efforts of the Zionist thought police to suppress the book, and also the panicky response of the University of Michigan press, which folded in the heat, dropped Overcoming Zionism for a few days, then went after Pluto Press, thereby setting itself up for some useful organizing.

Our committee to defend Pluto succeeded in generating some 650 letters supporting open discourse to the University of Michigan, and resulted in a victory, virtually unprecedented, of an aroused civil society over the forces of Zionist thought control.

There is a larger lesson to be drawn. Though David is undoubtedly right in insisting that concrete analysis on the ground is essential for moving forward politically, he is mistaken if he thinks discussion of the national question, etc, is essential to a justification  of the One-State option. And he is also mistaken when he defines the question of state legitimacy in terms of a popularity contest, as when he writes there can be no other “theoretical grounding for ‘the right of a state to exist’ than the desire of its people for it to exist” (italics in original), or that the category makes no sense “from a Marxist point of view.”

Yes, the people on the ground in Israel/ Palestine are the ones that have to be appealed to, for it is they who ultimately will have to decide what to do and how to carry it out. But that doesn’t mean that whatever they want is all right, a purely instrumental view the adoption of which would make Marxism irrelevant.

The Legitimacy Question

Classical Marxism has little to say directly about legitimacy. The question is, however, foregrounded by Gramsci and it is perfectly possible to extrapolate it back to Marx, even if he doesn’t use the word in this context.

After all, if one wants to supplant bourgeois rule, one needs to supplant the bourgeois state — not the particular regime in power but the whole form of the state that enables and expresses bourgeois power. Hence this form is essentially illegitimate. Marxists say as much whenever they criticize the structural limits of bourgeois democracy, no matter how much people may fall for the electoral farce.

This line of reasoning begins in the 1840s for Marx, and it simply rules out defining legitimacy as a function of the immediate desires of the population.

Since the 18th century the notion of fidelity to human rights has entered as a touchstone of legitimacy, most famously in the American Declaration of Independence. Certain Marxists may sneer at this linkage; but this disqualifies them in my view, and places them in the camp of Stalin or Mao.

I see Marxism as fulfilling the doctrine of human rights by extending it to the right to freely and collectively produce, which is the core of human nature. This is another way of expressing the illegitimacy of the bourgeois state, as essential to a mode of production that excludes the most basic human right.

I took the argument a step further in Overcoming Zionism, and parsed this into “relative” and “absolute” illegitimacy according to the degree corrective mechanisms are built-into the state apparatus. Thus the bourgeois state is relatively legitimate to the extent that it builds into itself ways of moving in a socialist direction; whereas it becomes absolutely illegitimate when there are no internal correctives available to overcome violations of human rights, especially as these take the form of racism.

Apartheid South Africa and Zionist Israel are the two salient examples here. They each required transformation, nonviolently if possible; South Africa was transformed (into a very damaged, relatively illegitimate bourgeois state); not so Israel.

When people are able to place Israel in the same category as South Africa — which is to say, when the baleful influence of Zionism is lifted — then its time will come and it, too, can be transformed, to the benefit of all, Jews included. For I do not accept the desire of Jews to have “their” state as legitimate, any more than I would have regarded the same kind of desire in Afrikaners, or alcoholics, as legitimate. Certain things are just fundamentally wrong and harmful, no matter how attractive they may be to some.

Strategic Goal

The notion of absolute state illegitimacy was derived to ground the critique of Zionism, while connecting its overcoming to the strategic goal of One-State. Obviously, this notion, like any other, requires critique and debate. For David to dismiss it out of hand, however, is not the way to go forward.

I would call the One-State position a strategic goal. It is both an end to be sought in itself (though with forms and paths to be decided by people on the ground) and an organizer of the means to that end. The One-State option requires that whatever we do in Israel/ Palestine is shaped by the insistence that all of its inhabitants have the same fundamental human rights; and until these are secured we do not rest.

Each and every such step is part of the One-State option; and the further we go along that path, the better will be the outcome. Thus the option is also a process.

I found myself puzzled in this regard by David Finkel’s notion that I had overlooked, and hence disregarded, the development within the Arab-Palestinian minority of Israel that the country be “a state of its citizens,” as against the Jewish state. Setting aside the fact that this development occurred after the manuscript of Overcoming Zionism was prepared, David is ascribing to me a rigidity and messianism utterly foreign to the way I approach the world, as though I am sitting back inertly waiting for the apocalypse of the single democratic state to arrive.

The point is, rather, that this intervention by Palestinians living within Israel is aligned with the strategic goal of the One-State. It is along its path precisely because it addresses itself to dissolving the salient theme of Zionism, that of the Jewish State.

A similar point holds for implementation of the Palestinian Right of Return, which I foreground in my last chapter. These are the practices of One-State, informed by the foundational assumption that there needs to be identical human right through Israel/Palestine, whatever the currents of nationalism and “facts on the ground” may dictate.

One last point. David avers that I accept the “priestly, rabbinic and ultimately Zionist view” that the ancient Israelites’ identity was rooted in refusing to be like the other hill tribes of Canaan. He states, in contrast, that they “seem to have happily shared gods and goddesses as well as wives, husbands and cultural practices with their neighbors.”

Well, that’s an intriguing idea, but David should do more than support it with the verb “to seem.” In Overcoming Zionism, I speak of the apartness of the ancient Israelites, citing works by Ronald Hendel and Peter Machinist, neither known to be a priestly or rabbinic authority.

The larger point is that this frames one side of an existential figure that shapes the history of the Jewish people between tribalism and universality —- this latter, well inscribed in the Old Testament’s Prophetic books. I agree with David, on the other hand, that the main lines of this figure were developed by Jews over the last few centuries.

from ATC 132 (January/February 2008)